When Manchester United were beaten 2-0 by PSG in the Champions League, rival fans were quick to make fun, having seen United supporters slowly start returning to their cocky selves after the great run of form under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
This game marked the beginning of a period of difficult games for United, including Chelsea away in the FA Cup before Liverpool at home. Had the wheels started to come off?
While it would be unfair to call this a make or break week for Solskjaer’s chances of retaining his position on a permanent basis, it’s hard to ignore the fact that three defeats on the trot wouldn’t have looked good, even if individually they were all games that there would be no shame in losing.
But they couldn’t have got off to a worse start, with Solskjaer’s game plan going out of the window when pacy forwards Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard went off with injuries before the second half started.
Paul Pogba, who had been excited to play against his hometown club and World Cup winning teammates ahead of kick-off, had a particularly frustrating evening. He barely touched the ball and was sent off late on, meaning he will miss the second leg. His form under Solskjaer has been incredible but one of the long-standing criticisms of him is that he doesn’t show up in the big games. He bucked that trend at the Etihad last season, as well at the Emirates against Arsenal, but those sort of performances have been few and far between.
Some fans would argue that Jose Mourinho’s tactics didn’t allow for Pogba to shine, and there’s truth to this, with us seeing the Frenchman reinvigorated under Solskjaer. However, for an £89 million man, you’d have expected more, even if he was limited by the way Mourinho deployed him.
His potential was there for all to see and when he really looked in the mood he was unplayable. That’s why fans grew frustrated this season when it appeared as though Pogba had given up, with his agent Mina Raiola talking up a move to Barcelona.
Pogba’s performances against the likes of Brighton and West Ham were atrocious and a far cry from what supporters knew he was capable of. It appeared as though he would force a move at the end of the season and United fans would never see him at his best consistently.
Thankfully, Solskjaer swooped in to save the day and has repeatedly praised the midfielder, making him central to his plans. Pogba is already enjoying the best season in his career for both goals and assists, and it’s only February.
His performance against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the FA Cup showed the Pogba that justifies the price tag. United had won just three of their previous 25 visits to west London before Monday’s 2-0 victory. Pogba played in a brilliant ball to Ander Herrera to see United take the lead, before scoring himself to put the game to bed. The pressure was on, especially on the back of the PSG defeat, and Pogba rose to the occasion.
Still, while progression in the FA Cup has been secured, United are still a few results away from feeling confident about holding on to their place in the top four. They are now one point ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea, with the latter facing Manchester City in the Carabao Cup final at the weekend.
Taking on Jurgen Klopp’s side on Sunday provides United, and Pogba, with the opportunity to show what they are made of. Still without Martial and Lingard, two players who nailed down their positions in Ole’s best XI, the team will be even more reliant on Pogba to be at his creative best.
Not only are United motivated by the all-important three points but the desire to deny their hated rivals a further advantage in the title race. While the options for potential champions this season are fairly depressing for United fans, they would rather their across town rivals City win the league over Liverpool closing in on their 20-time record.
United will be without Pogba for the second leg of the PSG tie, so Sunday will provide the midfielder with the chance to make amends and show why he deserves the title of one of the most expensive players in the world. Having spent time in United’s academy as a teenager, Pogba knows all about the importance of winning this one.
Sunday’s game won’t define Pogba but, if he continues to play as well as he has been doing, it could put to bed his poor form under the old regime and raise his status even higher with the supporters.Liverpool are 13/10 favourites to beat Man United on Sunday